On the Nanny State

04 Oct 2013

The term ‘Nanny State’ is banded around quite a bit these days. Sometimes its a legitimate complaint, sometimes it’s poorly disguised corporate lobbying, but most of the time it’s confused childish bitching from someone who doesn’t want to clean up their room. Pool fences, plain packaging, gambling pre-commitments. “The government is making me do something but I don’t want to do it.”

When exactly do constraints to our freedoms become the actions of a Nanny State? A tautologous, yet often overlooked requirement of Nanny Statism is that is must be conducted by the state. My inability to sprout wings and fly off to some tropical island is a constraint of my freedom, but these natural constraints are well … natural. My freedom to enjoy a little rest on a park bench is constrained when all the seats are taken, yet this is no fault of the state ~ assuming of course that its not the state’s role to provide seats whenever I want them. Many actions constrain our desires but only actions performed by the state can be considered Nanny Statist.

However just because only the actions performed by the state can be considered Nanny Statist, it doesn’t follow that all actions performed by the state are such. Clearly, many state actions fall outside the scope of what even the most minimalist anarcho-libertarian would considered Nanny Statist. Defence of a nation’s boarders against armed aggression, disaster assistance and the enforcement of property rights amongst citizens are some examples of what anyone who justifies the existence of the state would label as justifiable interventions.

Sometimes state actions are unjustifiable yet are not the actions of a Nanny State. The suspension of habeas corpus or the denial of suffrage are both examples of unjustifiable actions, not because they smack of the Nanny State, but because they are simply unjust. So where now do we draw the line between the actions of the State and the actions of the Nanny State?

Gerald Dworkin offers an illuminating characterisation of paternalism that seems especially apt. An action (or omission) is paternalistic if and only if:

  1. it interferes with the liberty or autonomy of an agent,
  2. it occurs without the consent of the agent, and
  3. it is done so just because it improves (or is believed to improve) the welfare of the agent.

So we actually don’t need to go much further than etymology - the Nanny State is state paternalism.

Its this last point of Dworkin’s that is most often absent from accusations of the Nanny Statism ~ that actions are taken just because they improve welfare of those whose freedoms they constrain. Most state actions however, are taken to improve or protect the welfare of others: taxation, criminal law, pollution and food standards etc. These actions certainly constrain liberties in one way or another but they do so in order to protect others, not those being constrained.

With this in mind, we can now examine what Nanny Statism is not. It is not intervention of the state to prevent harm to others, and neither is it the imposition of collective agreements concerning public goods ~ these are merely the roles of the state. So laws that limit your freedom to drive as fast as you want are not Nanny Statist - they are there to protect you from harming others.

Paying your fair share of taxes is not a case of living under the Nanny State and neither is being forced to pickup the steaming pile of crap your dog just laid in the park because I have just as much claim to enjoy the park dog-shit free as everyone else if that’s what we choose. I don’t care if you want to drive on the other side of the road today because doing so might harm me. If you want unbounded freedom, then go find yourself a cave in the wilderness somewhere and you’ll never have to worry about conflating the state with the Nanny State again.